The St. Louis 1904 World Fair was a centennial Celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. There were many exhibits and displays by other nations as well as American Exhibits. One of those exhibits was from Japan that was to make an impact on Semmes becoming the Nursery Center of the United States.
An official representative, Mr. Mykawa, of the government of Japan at the fair became interested in promoting rice farming in Houston, Texas. Upon his return to Japan he recruited men to help with his rice farming plans. The group went to Houston, Texas. Shortly after arrival, a farming accident claimed the life of Mr. Mykawa. The rice farming project failed shortly after his death.
The remaining group moved to Alvin, Texas and operated the Alvin-Japanese Nursery importing citrus trees and planting fruit orchards in southeast Texas. The Camellia japonica was imported along with citrus fruit, Oranges, Satsuma and other plants
K. Sawada, a member of the group, saw that the more active growth of citrus was eastward and moved to Grand Bay. Alabama. He then decided to move closer to the City of Mobile and in 1914 he purchased land overlooking Mobile and named his nursery Overlook Nursery. The first camellias were propagated around 1915. Cuttings were taken from plants that were planted in the nineteenth century in Mobile. The market for Camellias slowly began to grow.
K. Sawada married in 1916 Nobu Yoshioka from Japan. When Nobu came to Mobile she brought with her 500 Camellia seeds. These seeds were the first planting of Camellia seed at Overlook Nursery. The seeds grew into plants that produced flowers in 1929-1930. Outstanding plants were selected by K. Sawada for cross pollinating, beginning his fame as a Camellia grower developing many varieties.
The Sawadas had four children who survived into adult hood: Tom, George, Lurie and Ben. Tom was born in 1918 and named for Thomas Jefferson, George was named for General and first President, George Washington, Ben, the youngest was born in 1920 and named for Benjamin Franklin and is a retired Methodist minister. Nobu died shortly after giving birth of Ben and ‘papa’ and oldest son, Tom raised the three younger children.
It is interesting to note. When K. Sawada was asked why he didn’t settle on the west coast where he could speak Japanese, read Japanese newspapers and Magazines his answer always, if he had wanted to speak and read Japanese he would have remained in Japan. He was in America. He and his children would speak and read English. Tom, Ben, and George were the most American names he could think of for his sons, names of American patriots and statesmen—for he wanted them to be AMERICANS.
How this story relates to Semmes Nursery Industry?
“George Sawada along with Bill Dodd and Tom Dodd, Jr. were one-half of the first horticulture class at Alabama Polytechnic Institute. After their time together at Auburn, the Dodd’s operated Dodd Nurseries while the Sawada Family operated Overlook Nurseries. Rather than competitors the two families remained close friends in the same business. After George Sawada’s Death in 1998, the Dodd family presented a camellia named for ‘George Sawada at his memorial service.”
MBG History”-Kosaku Sawada, American” by Bill Ray.
Mrs. Lib Dodd, widow of Tom Dodd Jr. said, “there was always a spirit of kindness, and friendship among all Nurserymen, rather than a highly competitive spirit. A spirit of helping one another referring buyers to other nurserymen when they did not have a plant to meet the buyers request.”
The change from farms and timber industry to the nursery business in Semmes began in 1914. Mr. T. Kiyono from Japan purchased the J.R Harron property, formerly McCrary family property and began growing fruit and nuts. While Mr. Kiyono was on a visit back to Japan, World War II began. His land was seized by the government and sold to Clint McDade who hired Mr. Elwood Stephens to oversee the Nursery. After the war Mr. Kiyono was compensated by the government for taking his land. This nursery was later known as Semmes Nursery.
Two Welch brothers, John and Fred and their mother moved from Shenandoah, Iowa to Chunchula by wagon in 1892 and started an orchard and nursery selling fruit and nuts locally and shipping stock back to Iowa. Fred died in 1920 and his widow Dora and her brother, Tom Dodd, Sr. started a nursery in Semmes which was named Dodd and Welch Nursery. At Semmes they produced only field grown ornamentals which were shipped to Mt. Arbor Nurseries in Iowa. In 1928 Tom Dodd, Sr. purchased his sister’s interest in the business and the name was changed to Tom Dodd Nurseries.
Dear friends Mrs Tom Dodd, Jr. & Mrs. George Sawada
Preserving our History!